Back in January of this year, photos emerged on Twitter of what appeared to be a crashed military drone in Nigeria's war-torn Borno state, a flashpoint for the country's ongoing conflict with Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.
The pictures made headline news around the world because for once this was not a downed American unmanned aerial vehicle—although the US deployed drones to the region in 2014 to help in the search for the 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, no US drones are officially operated in Nigeria. According to experts, it appeared to be a China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation CH-3. It also seemed to be carrying a pair of AR-1 air-to-ground missiles under its distinctive, boomerang shaped fuselage. Put simply, this rough collection of poorly-shot camera photos seemed to be the first ever evidence that Chinese drones had flown in combat.
For some seven months the story was largely forgotten. Then on July 29, pictures were posted on a Nigerian news website showing military officials visiting the Nigerian Air Force's 75 Strike Group in Yola. Again they quickly spread across twitter. According to experts, they confirmed what had been earlier suggested by the Borno crash images—one of them showed the officials inspecting a CH-3, again armed with surface-to-air missiles.
Headlines were made again, with some going as far as to claim that 'China's First Drone War Is Here'. Even though the drones are—as far as can be told—firmly under Nigeria's control, the news that Chinese-made drones had seen action posed some serious foreign policy questions. What's the significance of Nigeria turning to China for drone technology? Is China using drones to defend its considerable economic investments in Africa and elsewhere?
Some analysts believe that there is indeed an immediate significance of the CH-3s going into action in the skies above Borno.
"China's interested in Nigeria's oil"
"[It] shows the importance that China sees in Nigeria—which will by 2050 be the third largest country in the world (after India, then China) and is Africa's largest economy," says Alex Vines, Director of Area Studies and International Law at Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London.
Kyle Mizokami, defense journalist and expert on China's military, thinks there's an even more direct objective for Beijing. "China's interested in Nigeria's oil," he tells me. "China invested $10 billion in hydrocarbon infrastructure in Nigeria last year. This is primarily to diversify China's oil sources."
It's hard not to see parallels with the Bush-regime's war on terror. While the Iraqi invasion was ostensibly about finding WMDs and responding to the terror networks thought to be behind 9/11, many sources—including US military commanders and White House officials— have openly admitted it was also about protecting US oil interests. While the US still remains the world's biggest consumer of oil, China's last few decades of industrial revolution have pushed it into a close second—it currently gulps down 10.480 million barrels a day. It's perhaps not surprising that it might want to take similar measures to the US in order to secure its demand.
"[T]he Boko Haram insurgency is a serious problem for China," explains Mizokami. "The Nigerian Army is incapable of handling Boko Haram, so this sort of help is important. The Chinese appear to be taking a page from the American playbook—those UAVs will probably go after Boko Haram's leadership."
As David Axe pointed out in the Daily Beast, what is unknown at this point is whether the CH-3s used in Nigeria are being controlled by the Nigerian Air Force, or flown remotely by Chinese military contractors—a question we might not get an answer to anytime soon, and one that muddies the ethical and political issues around statehood and remote warfare even further.
For Robert Farley, senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, the presence of CH-3s in Nigeria signifies little more than the fact that China knows how to fill a niche in a market when it sees one.
"The significance is that the Chinese defense industry can produce adequate UAVs at a reasonable price, and that the Chinese government is not terribly particular with respect to who it can sell those drones to," he tells me. "In this sense, the sale of drones isn't all that different from the sale of other Chinese military equipment, such as helicopters, small arms, and jet fighters. I don't think that China is very interested in who the weapons are being used against; Beijing doesn't see itself as sponsoring a proxy war."
There's certainly no denying this has been China's approach to the arms trade in the past, offering itself as an alternative supply to nations that the US won't or can't do business with. Despite being seemingly allied with the US against the kind of Islamic extremist groups that the war on terror was meant to target, Nigeria is on the US' 'no sell' list for drone technology, primarily due to it's horrendous human rights record.
Whether or not the deployment of Chinese drones is a power play by Beijing or just a trade opportunity, all the experts I talked to seem to agree on one thing: China would probably be reluctant to get its hands much dirtier.
"There doesn't seem to be much indication thus far that China is interested in any kind of serious multilateral action against terrorism," Farley told me in an email. "China is deeply concerned about terrorist groups infiltrating and mobilizing in Xinjiang (and to a lesser extent in Tibet), but thus far there's little to indicate that Beijing is interested in fighting that conflict outside of Chinese borders. More broadly, the PRC hasn't been very interested in big, international ideological campaigns since the 1960s. Foreign and security policy in China is more regionally focused. If China needed to reach out and touch someone, airstrikes (whether conducted by UAVs or by traditional manned aircraft) might well look like the best option."
Mizokami agrees, suggesting that other pressures closer to home would make Beijing reluctant to get involved beyond supporting drone strikes. "China is very wary of getting involved in foreign conflicts, and a 'war on terror' in particular. China does not like to get involved in foreign disputes, especially civil wars, on the grounds that it gives China the moral high ground—such as it were—on the Taiwan issue. China does not want other countries backing Taiwan, so it is loath to get involved in someone else's 'internal' affairs."
As much as military analysts and science fiction novelists might want to push the idea of an all-out war between China and the US, the reality seems to be that the two nations have more common enemies—and similar strategies for coping with them—than they do reasons to clash with each other. However, Mizokami is doubtful that there's much potential for an allegiance.
"I don't see the US helping China against extremists," he says. "I think the recent hacking scandals and the island building in the South China Sea is tipping China into being viewed as at least a partial adversary. They're not enemies, they're something new."
"China does not like to get involved in foreign disputes, especially civil wars, on the grounds that it gives China the moral high ground—such as it were—on the Taiwan issue."
As impartial as China might want to stay, it still has to face the hard reality that its economic expansion and quest for resources will only continue to push it up against terror groups. It's not just oil that it's thirsty for—its high tech manufacturing industry is just as dependent on copper and rare earth minerals, and has seen Chinese mining industries pump huge amounts of investment not just into African nations, but more recently Afghanistan. Just this year Beijing signed a huge $46 billion investment deal which will largely center on an economic corridor from Gwadar in Pakistan to Kashgar in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.
It's a huge infrastructure project—the creation of a new 'Silk Road' built from a chain of inland ports, power stations, highways and Special Economic Zones—with the aim of giving safe, fast access to the thousands of Chinese firms that already employ tens of thousands of Chinese workers in Africa and the Middle East. It not only pushes Chinese interests up against militants in these foreign territories—the corridor passes through areas that are within striking range of Pakistan's Taliban insurgents—but also on its own turf: Xinjiang is the only majority Muslim region within China's borders, and has had its own separatist movement since the 1980s.
Perhaps this is part of China's 'soft power' strategy for the region: The corridor will create thousands of jobs, and give Pakistan's failing economy a much needed boost. It could be that Beijing believes that raising the standard of living in what can be an incredibly poor region will help dissuade recruitment into militant groups. Mizokami is doubtful. "Call me cynical, but I don't think China is necessarily chasing a higher standard of living for locals. I think China is building schools for the headlines, to improve its reputation… It's a counter to the argument that China is neocolonialist."
So where does this leave China's so-called drone war? Pakistan has its own fleet of armed UAVs—just this week a Pakistan built Burraq drone killed three insurgents in Shawl Valley, according to Pakistan's official military news service. Pakistan has long asked the US to give it drone technology to combat militants, but the requests have been mostly ignored in Washington. But it seems that yet again Beijing may have been more willing—industry experts have commented on how similar the designs of the Burraq and CH-3 look, something that seems to be rather more than a coincidence.
Perhaps it is just economic opportunism again, with Chinese industry happy to step in to fill demand US companies can't or won't. Or perhaps China has learned an even more important lesson from US military mistakes. If the Obama administration swayed public opinion at home by replacing troops on the ground with an escalation of remote warfare, the strategy arguably backfired abroad as drone strikes came to represent a cold, violent, and highly oppressive form of American imperialism. China seems to have gone one step further—why risk the political backlash against a remote war when you can get proxy nations to fight it for you?
If this really is the start of China's first drone war, then it's one it's fighting not just remotely, but largely in secret.
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